One of the survivors of symphysiotomy in Ireland is Theresa Devoy who was seventeen when she went into hospital. Here is her story.
I met my husband on my 17th birthday. We were married in July 1962 and I had a symphysiotomy on the last day of April in 1963 at St Luke’s Hospital, Kilkenny. No cesarean was offered, there were no options, I wasn’t asked would I like a cesarean or would I have a symphysiotomy. There wasn’t any consent either sought or given, it was simply done.
I had never been inside a hospital but in April of 1963 the GP that I saw when I was about 6 months pregnant suggested that I could go into the hospital a week early because he obviously knew that there were going to be difficulties. I weighed 7 stone 10 pounds when I married and I was having a 10 pound baby.
When I got to the hospital, I don’t remember much of it until I went into labour, which was about 5 days after going in. I started labour on a Sunday afternoon, nothing was done, I didn’t see a doctor. By Monday afternoon I thought I was dying, the pain was unbearable.
Eventually, they brought me to the labour ward about 11 o’clock on the Monday night. At that stage I was just begging them to call a doctor, I thought I was dying. They refused point blank all that night to call a doctor. Early on Tuesday morning, the Sister who was in charge came in and lit candles on a table beside the trolley that I was on, and a priest came in all the vestments. At that time there was no such thing as a Sacrament for the Sick, if you were anointed you were dying, it was as simple as that. I thought I was gone.
I have no memory of even seeing a doctor. Now, I was a public patient, and I’ve always felt that may have had something to do with it. Plus there were nuns who, I think they just assumed because I was so young that I must have been pregnant before I got married. I felt that I was sort of isolated, for whatever reason, because I was so young. When I went into labour I begged for two solid days for them to call the doctor and they wouldn’t.
Some time after that a doctor put his head around the door and said, ‘calm down pet, I’ll help you, but I have to do my rounds first’. He didn’t come near the trolley, he just said it to me from the door. So he went away and he did his rounds and the last thing I remember was my feet being pulled up into the stirrups and I don’t remember anything after that until I was being wheeled out of the labour ward. I was strapped from my knees to my boobs, and I was lying flat on a board for about 5 weeks. I couldn’t move. They actually split my pelvis bone and it had to be bound and re-knitted. The difficulties started after that. Walking is a major difficulty, even to this day. I sort of have to think, ‘which leg will I try first?’.
When I went in I was 18 and a half, I have been incontinent all my life, all my life since then. And I heard some comment that really annoyed me. Dr Neary was interviewed about the Drogheda ladies at some stage, and the interviewer asked him, ‘what about these women now, that have had symphysiotomy?’ and his reply was, ‘they smell the money’.
I want to tell him that I’m not looking for money, up until seven years ago I knew I had a symphysiotomy but I simply didn’t know what that was. I would still not know if a new doctor hadn’t arrived at my practice in Co Wicklow. For 49 years, I was paying for my GP visits, I was buying incontinence pads, I was paying for medicine, and just luckily the new doctor said to me, ‘Mrs Devoy, tell me your history?’. And when I told her I had a symphysiotomy, she was just gobsmacked. And she organised that I would get a medical card from then on.
I’ve been offered no help, no counselling. There have been times in my life when I was depressed. Right now, we’re talking almost 50 years, the good side of it is my husband and I are celebrating 50 years of marriage in a couple of weeks time. But for a lot of that time the symphysiotomy directly impinged on my life. I don’t know what else I could say.
I was let out of the hospital about 4 or 5 weeks after the birth, on condition that I would go home to my mother’s, that I would sleep downstairs, because I couldn’t walk up steps and my husband had to carry me from the car into my mother’s house as there were a couple of steps. I physically had to learn to walk, as in, try to walk. and the pain was just unbearable. I remember saying to myself, ‘My God, you must be able to walk’, and talking myself into trying. I’d walk maybe 50 yards and I would stop and have to wait for somebody to come and bring me back. So the pain that we women have gone through over that number of years, I couldn’t even describe it.
I certainly believe symphysiotomy has impinged on my life, to the extent that, I’m one of ten children in my family, there were six of us girls, and I’m the only one who has had surgeries; I’ve had an ovary removed, I’ve had my womb removed, things wrong with me and I do believe it’s because of that, that all my life I’ve been susceptible to illness. I joke with the nurses out in Vincent’s that I own the hospital, that I have shares in it. They say, ‘Not you again Theresa!’. It’s just been a constant nightmare.